I put my phone down then put my hands on my head. What wasn’t my loved one getting about me being too drained to listen or utter a reply, much less give my input?
I sighed, resourced and breathed. Then, I put those same hands on the keyboard. In the engine I searched, “What it’s like to be a therapist-in-training.”
OK, “graduate student therapist … what to expect?”
OK, how about, “day in the life of a therapist … real experience.”
Oh, come on.
The resounding collective silence made my internal ruckus clang that much louder.
I had spent my entire day attuned to clients’ emotional, physical and spiritual mise-en-scènes, translating their output through my being to churn out guidance. I was out of processing. Feedback loops fried. I really needed someone else to come through for me. Please, just take one look at me and paraphrase my inner experience in a simple way. Show me you understand that I come as I am and, oh, while we’re here, if you don’t mind telling me where it is that I am …
But who will “therapize” the therapist? Typically, it’s another therapist (and then that therapist sees their therapist, who sees their therapist, and so on, until maybe that therapist sees the original and the ouroboros ingests its tail).
But my therapy appointment was on Friday. Plus, therapy requires talking, feeling and thinking, and like I said, I’m fresh out of all of that.
So, where was that quick listicle online that I could point to like, “Yes, that. That’s what’s going on”?
No processing. Just a gentle whoosh of the paper plane “Share” button and I could go night-night.
That listicle wasn’t anywhere to be found. No whoosh. (I went night-night anyway.)
The next morning, sheer frustration, chutzpah and divine guidance kicked in and wrote that article for me … and for you.
If you’re a counselor-in-training, licensed clinician or healer looking for an article to share when you’re too tired to explain to a loved one what’s going on for you, here’s that link.
If you’re a client, future counselor or that loved one … maybe this will provide insight into what’s going on for us behind the scenes.
I’m a year and a half into my master’s in counseling training. Here’s what it’s really like to be a counselor-in-training.
1) It really is training. Consider graduate school an initiation. I have sat in Indigenous, shamanic ceremonies and heard stories of their rigorous apprenticeships. It’s like that, but a Western version. You will be matched with a site supervisor, a school supervisor and many other supervisors as your guides. You will attend your own therapy. You will sit present with clients for hundreds of hours. You will have to sit with yourself for thousands.
2) There will never be any real “time off.” Even in the moments in which you say, “All right, this is it! My day to relax! Time to chill …” you will notice with keen sensitivity all the ways in which you can’t relax and don’t know how. Then you will process this, deep dive into your family of origin and cultural programming, and before you know it, instead of watching a dumb show on Netflix (nothing emotional, please!), you will find yourself Googling the unconscious mechanisms that fostered your patterns. Super relaxing.
You will finally log off of Zoom client calls for the day, only to start analyzing your housemate’s behavior based on a theoretical orientation you just learned. This will be hard to turn off and will be discomforting. I can’t unsee it, but am I really seeing what I think I am? Try on a different lens and the story changes … can’t unsee that either.
You will crave turning off your emotions. You will see all the ways in which you try to escape them. You will long for an hour of laughing with people who do their own inner work and won’t tell you anything that they need or are working on emotionally.
You will shudder when someone randomly approaches you for “free therapy.” Please, no, anything but that! You will be taken aback when you understand a friend’s patterns with greater insight yet incur mental jet lag when you’re still not quite sure what to do with said insight.
3) Be prepared to be called out. Confronted. Often. All the time. By supervisors, clients, textbooks, yourself — and then in relationship with partners, the earth, the cosmos. As you learn to deeply listen without reacting, you will become like an empty vessel. You will become detached from the self to observe You. You will assess yourself as if you were a case conceptualization. Am I, too, a clinical summary? Who is this captured on the page? This will feel dissociative and healing all at once.
Be prepared to knock your ego down by all of the notches. You will undergo ego death often, in the psychological and spiritual senses. Your core beliefs of who you are will be revealed to be an illusion, a veil you picked up somewhere but to which you have no authentic attachment. What even is this belief, and why is it in the back of my psychic closet?
There will be periods of absolutely no connection to something bigger, then times in which you can understand it all. Then, times in which you understand absolutely nothing again. If you can laugh at this, good.
You will begin to find ways to surrender — and see all the ways in which you don’t. You will question how you do everything. And I mean everything. How you react, communicate, talk, move, why you give, why you resent. Anything you do can and will be used (by you) to analyze you.
4) Relationships may require adaptation. You will sometimes log off of client calls and not be able to make eye contact with your family. You will need to learn to take a walk after work to clear your head and, realistically, sometimes you won’t be able to. Hi, uh, does my soul still shine through my bleary eyes?
Your loved ones may not understand why you can’t take their calls. Ugh. Or why you’re cold. Oof. Or why you’re tired beyond measure. Oh my. This can be isolating, but you also have such a deep understanding of others that you empathize with them too. Sure thing. Yet you can’t reach over that gap and extend yourself any further. You may feel powerless to show love when your cups (your capacities) are not filled. I’m sorry, not right now. We are experiencing an unusually high call volume. Please leave a message.
You will sometimes not have time for other relationships. You will think you have to focus on work and clients, but then you realize you can take clients only as far as you have gone. Your breakthroughs personally will carry over to your work professionally. The only way out is through — with everyone.
You will suddenly have very little capacity to hear of toxicity in others’ relationships. You will also stop coaching them through it and tell it to them straight or nod and stay in your lane. You’ll discover your limits and an enormous amount of reserve you didn’t know you had.
You will crave non-counselor-client interactions. You will cling to anyone with a light energy. You will want so badly to be friends with nontherapists, yet therapists will be the only ones who understand you in a certain way. This will be confusing and bittersweet and insular, but brilliant.
5) You will need to find new, stronger ways to self-care. You will feel frustrated when you rigorously tend to your cups and yet another client, assignment or shadow pings you into another learning lesson. You will feel like you can never fill your cups back up. This will feel daunting.
Sometimes you won’t be able to laugh or cry or respond to text messages. You’ll crave the simple things — being barefoot in dirt, the wind of spring, the blooms on the tree outside. Mother blooms, good day to you. You will stare and talk to the flowers and water the bushes. Nurture me as I nurture you. You will deepen your sense of connection to Source (God, Higher Power). Thank you.
You will have to learn what it’s like in your body to feel infiltrated by unfamiliar energies — those emanating from others both past and present, and from their past and present. You’ll have to learn how to clear those energies out of your system daily or hourly. You’ll have to remember what it’s like to feel your own energy and not get swept away in others’ emotions and stories. You’ll have to come back to yourself before you can approach friends, family and partners or you will transfer that energy onto them unwittingly. I won’t be perfect, as this is a practice.
6) Expect transformation and lots of it. If you used to undergo spiritual ceremonies, you will realize that you may no longer “need” this in the way you once thought. Every day will be a journey. Every moment carries potency and preciousness. You will also realize that I am the medicine. As you move through your own stuff, your desire for duty will expand. It is time to pay it forward — and backward.
Your grittiest shadows will emerge with a vengeance. This will be a daily confrontation, and you will need to learn to perceive this activation and flooding as “grist for the mill.” You will need to befriend any and all parts of you so that you can show up with minimal reaction and bias. Hello, demons, my old friends!
Sometimes you will fail at this and react “at” a client. Prepare to fail often. Practice being comfortable with failure. Perk up your ears the way you would with a client when your reactions to failure arise. As you evolve, listen for how these reactions change over time from hissing to droning to cooing.
They will tell you to trust the process, but the process will feel long and harrowing and may grow darker before lighter. You will cling to your faith, self-resourcing and anything that gives you center. Sometimes those things will stop soothing, and you will feel lost. Time to find other ways to come back to my inner home. There will be times when you no longer have any pacifier to ease the fuss. I accept everything I am feeling, including the lack of any current or future promise of relief. I am here with me, with it all. If you let it, this is where your power emerges in full.
There will be moments of immense breakthrough. This can be just as overwhelming as the breakdowns. You will find a newfound sense of joy, hope, peace and contentedness within. You may also suddenly see all the ways in which you were previously stuck for so long and mourn that. But then you will be filled with an immense pride for your commitment to tread and gratitude for all of your teachers, including the so-called stuckness. Sometimes you will go through periods of breakdown and breakthrough 10 times in the same day. This vacillation will ooze into your dreams, which you will record and analyze to the nth degree before reaching a point of humorous acceptance. Maybe there’s no meaning to those burnt pieces of toast I forgot to put jelly on before high school math class in space after all.
7) There will be times where you want to quit — don’t. This would be doing you a disservice. You know too much now about how and when and why you wish to quit. Learning to sabotage the self-sabotage will be next level. No subterfuge permitted within the self. This will make you impermeable to any kind of manipulation. Yet you will have to watch that you are too good at seeing, and sometimes (rarely) you will see things that aren’t there. A mirage or my intuition? You will have to remain flexible to understand that not everything is a pattern or a pattern that you have seen before. In yourself included. Wise, yet wise enough to be open to the new.
You will have periods of feeling inside-out. You will have moments where you absolutely cannot under any circumstances go any further. You will have crushing days yet accept that this is your path regardless of the weight. There will be days of endless criticism and then days of affirming gratitude for your skills. There will be days where your clients cling to you, or hate you, or make you the villain in their story. Go ahead and do what you need to do. You will feel invincible when you understand that it’s not about you and terrible when you take it to heart when you know that you “shouldn’t.” You will find compassion for yourself in all moments, the same way you do for clients.
You will start to see this work pay off in your own relationships. You will carry yourself with a more confident, happier energy. You will heal yourself and others. This is the work, and the work will ripple onto itself. You will feel a sense of mastery in “moving through” in all your messy glory. I know with my entire being who I am and what I am capable of. Always have and always will be. You will integrate this grace. I trust that I can navigate all types of waters.
You will feel freer than you did before you came here to training. You will understand that you have always, already been on this path. You will understand that there is no deviating from destiny.
As healers, we heal ourselves, but we also heal each other, together. The “You” here is really me. And the me, you.
Allison Hauser (she/they) is a graduate student in clinical mental health counseling with Northwestern University. At the time of writing this, they are completing their master’s-level internship and are set to graduate in 2023. In addition to being a counselor-in-training, consultant, speaker and writer, Allison walks the lifelong paths of professional international artist, healer, spiritualist, activist and musician. Find their work at allisonhauser.com, connect with them on LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter or YouTube, and contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.
I loved this article. Your ending is so powerful! I felt it deeply.
Thank you, Shalini. I’m so touched that this piece spoke to you. While I felt called by something bigger to birth this piece into the collective consciousness, I had no clue what would happen afterward. It has been profound to hear that my voice moved you and others. I couldn’t ask for more, except maybe for one thing. After hearing how loudly the piece spoke and to so many, I see just how great the rift in the plates is… the silence in the healing professions on “initiation” is stark. So I ask that this piece be used as a medium of advocacy for emerging students and seekers. Share it with your fellows or anyone considering taking the leap. Clinicians have written back to me echoing this sentiment for wide distribution into the next generations. My site supervisor, a professor, has begun using this article in graduate counseling coursework for essay processing and discussion. I hope that this piece has legs and that it will help walk us all home. If you have ideas or are inspired to help it live on, please reach out to me. Thank you again! – Allison
This is so powerful! Thank you for caring
Hi Sophia, thank YOU for being so powerful and for caring. I feel that this piece mirrors what we have going on within!
Alison, thank you for writing this piece. It’s so nice to learn from, and connect to, your insights and experiences. You captured realities and dynamics of my lived experience of school (Masters & Doctoral level), supervision, clients, and even in relationships with friends, family and acquaintances. In succinct and relatable ways you gave a wonderful orientation to your life-world.
Doing this work affects us in all parts of life. Reading your account gave me a sense of hope and connection; of which our profession needs more.
Ben, your summarization and self-reflection levels are strong. Thank you for sharing your interpretations with us (help, I’m stuck in counseling speak!). Thank you for sharing your sense of renewal, solidarity, and visions with all of us. Thank you for being a fellow drop in this ripple effect.
Thank you for sharing because I have experienced all 7 bulletin points and I’m only a student. The most important bulletin point that I will make sure I hold on to is Don’t Quit. All of this imperative information has been helpful and much appreciated.
Keep going, Shalonda. We are all rooting for you and right there with you. Your ancestors too! I know you know!
Excellent article. What a way to be and provide what you could not find while searching for yourself. Truly filling in the gap in yet another way besides what you do as a counselor. Many parts spoke on the journey so far and gave great insight on what is to come. The ending stuck the most powerfully…. the realization that we are where we were always meant and led to be.
Continue on in your great work.
Thank you for sharing.
Yes. We are all here. That’s it! Time to enjoy. Thank you, Christopher. Many lights flicker and shimmer on your path.
Being in touch with the client. Being of empathy, allow yourself to feel,listen, talk and be genuine, show the client that it’s ok to feel bc feeling is just that. It’s not intelligent, it’s an emotion and bettors comes with feelings.
Beyond… to our true nature. Exactly. I am so grateful for you, Jessie. To dance and joy!
I will just be starting practicum/internship in July and this article was so timely. All the things made so much sense to me and almost gave me permission to not know what I don’t quite know yet, and that I will still be okay. I am going to refer back to this during the semester when I am feeling the most overwhelmed. I appreciate you looking out for your fellow students and sharing your insights.
Wishing you the best!
Everything is in alignment. Trust peace. Trust your center. Thank you for seeing. Thank you for being, Maria.
Thank you, Allison. Your writing is powerful and beautiful. As a 48 year old graduate student in a counseling MA program, this really resonated with me. I’m finishing my 2nd year and starting to see clients. This is all much harder than I thought it would be. As an empath, there are so many layers to what I am feeling and experiencing. Thank you for taking the time to help make sense of what many of us struggle with.
“Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.” – Lao Tzu
Thank you so much for writing this. I wish this article existed when I was in grad school. I literally finished in May 2022, and will start residency this summer.
I definitely felt my share of highs and lows, and the unfortunate truth that only counselor-friends truly understand each other and their specific problems. My wish, too, is for my family and friends to know the hardships counselors-in-training had to endure to reach our goals today. It was (and still is) a commendable sacrifice to do the work we do.
Many blessings on your continued journey!
And it is all worth it. Thank you for being here. Flores en tu camino!
I cannot thank you enough for writing this. I needed to read this tonight. I felt nearly every word resonate in my soul! I am currently in a Clinical Mental Health Counseling Masters program. I am part of a cohort of 22 amazing people (at Northern Arizona University) and we are about to start Practicum this fall and Internship in the Spring and then on to licensure! It’s invigorating, exhausting, titillating, and terrifying all at once. You described the journey so beautifully and painfully accurate. I will make sure to share this with my cohort/future colleagues.
A million thanks from another mental Grad student!
Infinite thank you’s in return, fellow traveler. You know where to find me!
Thank you for this article; everything you stated is true!!! I am in my second year in my CMHC program, and all of your points resonate with me. Glad to know I am not alone! We are all superheroes!
Solidarity, Tara! We are here now, together.